X-Men: First Class (2011)
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Written by: Ashley Miller, Bryan Singer, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Turner, Zack Stentz
Starring: James McAvoy, January Jones, Jason Flemyng, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne
X-Men: First Class: In Cinema’s now
(12a) Running Time: 132 minutes
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Sheldon Tuner (story), Bryan Singer (story)
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
So, Matthew Vaughn takes a stab at the X-Men franchise, the man who re-invented the gangster film with the superb Layer Cake, the man who did something near impossible and made non super hero’s cool and, well, super hero’s with Kick Ass, and the less said about turning De Niro into a camp singer in Stardust the better! Seriously though, four films into his career and Vaughn takes on one of the biggest superhero franchises in the world, so can he deliver the goods? The simple answer is yes, but since this is a review, I am going to have to waffle on for a bit and provide you with some proof. See, there are some out there who dismiss this new X-Men film and some who quite simply refuse to like it, while others are calling it sheer class. Vaughn has made it very clear that his film is in no way meant to be connected with the three X-Men movies released over the past ten years, this is not intended to be a prequel to those films, this is Vaughn’s vision and the only link to the previous films is a bizarre cameo that is both funny but completely out of place. When you see the scene you’ll understand why it feels out of place. It is a nice touch Vaughn, but a completely unnecessary one and I really hope it does not hint to future things to come.
So, just how good is X-Men First Class? Well, this is how good I thought it was. Think back to the first time you saw Christopher Nolan’s re-invention of Batman, how serious it suddenly became, how much like a real film about real emotions and believable characters it turned. Now think back to what Nolan did with The Dark Knight and how it felt being in the cinema and witnessing something totally unexpected, totally breathtaking and incredibly special. If the Dark Knight floated your boat, then X-Men First Class is for you, but if you preferred the original Batman films, and Jack Nicholson’s Joker, then just maybe you won’t buy into this new X-Men world. I loved every second, every character (apart from maybe one), every scene, this was one of those rare movies that I just did not want to finish, and all I can think of now is if they’ll do another and if they do, PLEASE stick to this formula. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the other three X-Men movies, I really really did, but it just felt that this movie had more class, a higher level of brilliance. I was doubtful going into this movie that anyone other than Patrick Stewart could play Xavier, or Ian McKellen could play Magneto. James McAvoy as Xavier, and Michael Fassenbender as Magneto are quite simply perfect, superb, but it is unfair to compare them to Stewart or McKellen. In fact, it is unfair to compare any of this film to the other three movies, after all, Vaughn wants to be completely separate from them so I really must stop with the comparisons now. Lets move on…
X-Men First Class is a film set in the 1960’s, Charles Xavier is at University and Erik Lensherr is travelling around Europe hellbent on revenge against the man who made him the way he is. Go back in time a little further and all becomes clear. At a Nazi concentration camp, Lensherr is spotted by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon on breathtaking form) as his Mother is taken away, anger brings about super powers that can bend metal, and Shaw wants to exploit this ‘gift’ for his own evil plans. Knowing anger can bring on these powers, Shaw puts Lensherr in an impossible situation and murders his Mother, causing him to go mad with rage and destroy Shaw’s office. Move to present time and it seems Lensherr escaped after years of abuse and testing which has turned him into a very very angry man, and a lonely one. Meanwhile Xavier is living the life of luxury, using his telepathic powers to pick up girls and spot mutants. Turns out his previous life was simpler, for he took in Raven, better known as Mystique(Jennifer Lawrence) as she attempts to steal food from his Mothers house. The pair become like Brother and Sister. Xavier is popular and has great taste in women, in fact, it would seem that Vaughn himself has a bit of a soft spot for female flesh. Most of his women spend half the film in very short skirts, some of them half naked for most of the film, so there is plenty to like here for the male population! Even better is a scene where Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrn) dons sexy underwear and stockings while hunting Emma Frost (January Jones) and it is after this that the film takes shape. Working for the CIA, McTaggart spots Emma Frost and her cronies are mutants and she heads to Oxford University to find the ‘expert’ on Mutants, Charles Xavier.
Up to this point there has not been a lot of action, but there is a continuous brooding build up that never slows or gets boring, and once Xavier is joined with the CIA and they seek out Frost, Lensherr comes into the picture. See, it is Shaw that the CIA is after, and it just so happens that Lensherr is also after him and finally Xavier and Lensherr meet. It is not perfect, but they join forces and begin helping the CIA to track Shaw who is about to start World War Three by making the Russians move some nuclear missiles to Cuba. With its threat of World War Three, the Russians and even President Kennedy addressing the nation, First Class takes on a strong political edge that oddly does not feel out of place and actually makes the Mutants feel all the more ‘special’. Xavier takes his skills to the CIA big bosses who dismiss his silly claims until Mystique shows off her skills on fine style, resulting in Xavier saying one of the most quotable lines of the years “how’s that for a magic trick?” Thankfully Oliver Platts (a sadly under-used actor here) man in a black suit is sat near the back of the room, his eyes light up and the path to Xavier’s X-Men is about to begin. We know where the story leads from here, as Xavier and Lensherr finally see eye to eye, become close friends and set off on a mission to find others like themselves to help fight Shaw and his gang of Mutants.
Vaughn handles the film with immense class and precision to every single detail being inch perfect, the special effects are jaw dropping, and every character manages to balance proper serious acting whilst starring in a superhero film, something which Nolan perfected. This film feels more like a serious thriller with some people with special powers thrown in, rather than a superhero movie trying desperately to be cool. There is a constant score humming in the background which every now and again raises the intensity levels which works wonders. The cast, even Beast, border at times on cheese or silliness, but thankfully know when to stop. This is my kind of superhero film, I like serious films you see. Now don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the odd bit of Hollywood fun, and seeing the new recruits meet up at Xavier’s place and show off their skills is a fantastic crowd pleasing scene, as is Xavier’s training of his recruits. It perfectly blends moments of commercial comedy with sudden jolts of incredible emotion very very well. Watch as Xavier helps Lensherr move a giant satellite and tell me you didn’t get a lump on your throat! The good guys are all over this film, and McAvoy makes Xavier an immensely likeable character and Fassenbendrer portrays a damaged Lensherr with real intent, but what about Bacon’s Boys?
Well, Kevin Bacon as Sebastien Shaw is something to really cherish as this could well be the villain of the year. Bacon oozes menace and dark charisma from every pour, and he is clearly loving the role. He has a cheeky smile that is quite unsettling in places, but in a roundabout way, this could well be Bacon’s film. I wouldn’t say he is in the same league as Heath Ledger’s Joker as Shaw is a different kind of madman, but as performances go, Bacon is up there with the best, Hell, even I nearly bought into his team! His henchmen, and woman, are overshadowed by his superb presence and when on screen, Bacon owns it. We see the invention of Magneto’s helmet here, as Shaw wears it to keep that bastard Xavier out of his head and, I have to admit, Bacon makes the helmet look cool. He has been sorely missed in films of late, and by God it is good to see him back. When he reveals his power it is an exceptional site to see, and again, Bacon makes it look cool, in fact you almost want him to win and if it wasn’t for McAvoys heartfelt performance or Fassenbender’s powerful portrayal of a broken man, you would want him to win!
If you are an X-men fan then you know where the story leads, and if your not familiar with the story, don’t worry I won’t spoil anything here. But, for those fans who know the story, Vaughn delivers a powerful ending, a real punch to the guts that is guaranteed to upset even the hardest of hearts. Even knowing hoe it all pans out, and without the element of surprise, the ending still whacks a mighty wallop. Vaughn has re-invented X-men here, some may buy into it, others won’t and those that don’t, well, thats your loss. Me, I cannot wait for a sequel. This is as near to a perfect superhero film you are likely to see this side of the Dark Knight, this is serious stuff, intelligent stuff, with a gripping plot, superb characters and some jaw dropping special effects. Nothing is left to chance, Vaughn has stood up and the whole world needs to take notice, here is a man with incredible skill and undeniable commitment. X-Men First Class is indeed, First Class.